Desperate to conserve, legislators' proposals inlcude cow pies : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Desperate to conserve, legislators' proposals even include cow pies

Posted at 10:05 p.m. PST Saturday, March 10, 2001


Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO -- With the dog days of summer around the corner and the looming threat of rolling blackouts, California is urgently dusting off a concept that went the way of pukka shells and gassing up the VW on odd-numbered days: conservation.

State lawmakers are sifting through dozens of conservation initiatives -- including a $1 billion catch-all bill proposed by Sen. Byron Sher, D-Redwood City -- aimed at slicing the state's peak summertime power use by at least 10 percent. Other proposals run the gamut from costly plans such as replacing watt-guzzling refrigerators and air conditioners to quirky ones such as turning cow patties into electrons.

The state has been struggling to negotiate long-term contracts for cheaper electricity but has found enough to handle no more than 70 percent of the state's needs during the hot months. Without a deep cut in consumption, California will be plagued with regular power outages that could weaken the state's slowing economy, not to mention annoy homeowners whose air conditioning cuts off at the warmest time of the day.

Gov. Gray Davis has asked consumers to help slash energy use by 5,000 megawatts, the amount needed to power 5 million homes. ``It is not difficult to do,'' he said, suggesting consumers put computers on sleep mode and replace electricity-guzzling devices with energy efficient models. ``You'll find you'll get lower bills, and you'll help California get through this energy crisis.''

Already conserving

The state has high marks when it comes to efficient power use. According to federal statistics, California ranks 49th in per capita electricity consumption.

Last month, California businesses and consumers cut their energy use by 8 percent, a feat the governor hailed as evidence that Californians are heeding the call for conservation. Encouraged that the sharp decline occurred with no financial incentives other than consumers trying to keep down their own rising electricity bills, lawmakers hope financial incentives will spur even more reductions during the hot summer months.

In addition to Sher's bill, which includes some of the governor's key conservation proposals, Davis has asked businesses to cut excessive lighting and next week plans to unveil the details of his proposal to install ``real-time'' meters in commercial businesses and charge them more for peak-time consumption. Businesses use 70 percent of the state's energy.

From paying consumers 10 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy that they shave off their home electricity bills to giving tax credits to companies that install more efficient generators, lawmakers are signaling their intent to pour money into conservation efforts that went to seed during the days of cheap energy.

``There are so many things we can do instead of being so dependent on Edison and PG&E,'' said Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario, whose conservation proposals range from funding plants that turn methane gas from cow manure into energy --leaving behind an odorless fertilizer and mulch -- to providing a sales tax exemption for the purchase of clean energy generators such as solar panels and wind power.

Of the 150 energy-related bills introduced this year, many embrace a spectrum of conservation ideas. To reduce the strain on the electric grid, Sen. Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, wants to ask Congress to allow states to shift to daylight-saving time year-round.

Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, wants to give tax breaks to Universal Studios and other companies that want to build their own power generators. Sen. Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, proposes tax credits to encourage residents to install pricey solar panels.

And Senate President pro tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, is even exploring whether the state can ban nighttime professional baseball games.The chief conservation bill is SBX1 5, the special session bill carried by Sher that earmarks more than $1 billion to expand a laundry list of conservation programs, most of which already exist.

The goal is impressive: slash 2,500 megawatts of electricity use by late June.

Funding boosts suggested

The bill provides millions of dollars to the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission and other state agencies for one-time bumps in funding for energy-related programs. Included are those that help low-income residents pay their bills and weatherize their homes, give businesses incentives to use sun-reflecting materials when re-roofing their buildings, and help cities and counties install more energy-efficient traffic lights.

California Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Fred Main said the chamber supports a number of the bills, especially those providing tax breaks and incentives to companies that install energy efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems.

But with the state expected to spend up to $3 billion just to buy electricity that the cash-strapped utilities no longer can afford, money for conservation could be tight.``Which ideas survive and are put into place largely will be an exercise in economics,'' Main said.

Concerns about costs prompted some lawmakers to vote against Sher's conservation-spending bill Monday, although Sher is working to shore up support for it and wants to link it to a bill that would make it easier to find sites for power plants.

``We have to increase supply and decrease demand,'' Sher said.

Sher said the $1 billion would come from surplus state revenues, while the money being spent to buy electricity now will be repaid through bonds.

Still, Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, said she thinks Sher's bill spends money unwisely. For example, she said, she's wary of giving the PUC more money for a program that, so far, is available only to about 40 percent of low-income families that are eligible.

``It is like dealing a lot of aces to a lot of people who don't necessarily know how to play cards,'' she said.

She also questions whether funneling $1 billion to state agencies is more efficient than giving $500,000 to each of 475 California cities -- for a total of about $250 million -- to get programs up and running quickly.

GOP favors rebates

Republicans have similar concerns, said Brulte, the Senate GOP leader. Instead of ``spending $1 billion on big government programs,'' he said Republicans favor giving the money back to consumers in the shape of rebates, and letting them determine how best to curb use.``You'll get greater conservation with the same dollar amount,'' he said.

But conservation advocates fear that haggling over provisions in Sher's bill will make it difficult to put conservation programs in place in time for the summer.

``The buds are on the trees,'' said V. John White, who represents renewable energy generators and the Sierra Club. ``We just need to get this money out in the field.''

-- Swissrose (, March 11, 2001

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